Public Spaces, Private Dreams
Studies of a Young Painter in Paris
It seems as if each one of the great 19th century French painters was initially forbidden by his respectable parents to entertain ambitions of being an artist but won them over, or wore them down, by failing to succeed at any of the respectable professions they endorsed.
Manet's parents (well-educated and distinguished middle class Parisians - his father a high official in the Ministry of Justice, his mother the daughter of a diplomat) were no different. But they finally gave their consent to their son's vocation if he would study with a respectable art teacher. He choose that darling of the Salon, Thomas Couture, working under him for six years.
Couture was not a bad choice given his eclecticism, ambition, vigor and technical virtuosity. His salon masterpiece, The Romans in the Period of their Decadence, owes a painterly debt to Veronese and Tiepolo. Yet there is neither reckless paganism nor severe moralism here. This is one dull, lewd orgy. A machine, as the French say, but lacking wit, irony and the bite which true decadence always has.
Manet always sought to be accepted by the Salon and refused to exhibit with his Impressionist friends. Yet he was one of those painters who are incapable of working the way his teacher, much less the academy, wanted. While Couture would have certainly encouraged his pupils to make copies of paintings in the Louvre, the rules and the requirements of the French Academy were very nearly the opposite of what one might learn on ones own in that great museum.
There was first of all the hierarchy of genres, with History Paintings and Allegory at the top and Still Life and Landscape at the bottom. Moreover, the artist was expected to idealize the figures he painted. Manet like so many others acquired his real education by laboriously copying Titian, Tintoretto, Rembrandt, Velázquez and Goya. When he payed a visit to The elderly Delacroix in his studio, the Romantic master encouraged him to study Rubens - the great alternative to Poussin in French painting. (For the result, see Manet's 1863 painting Fishing at the Met, where he and his wife replace Rubens and his wife.)
Zola, Baudelaire and the Philosopher
After touring the museums of Europe, Manet found himself befriended by the two most advanced Parisian writers of the time, the novelist and social critic Émile Zola, and the poet and art critic Charles Baudelaire. In one of his first works under their influence he painted The Absinthe Drinker/The Philosopher (1859), which was promptly rejected by the Salon both for its choice of low life subject and its inappropriate suggestion that a street drunk and a philosopher have anything in common.
Needless to say, the members of the Academy had not caught the allusion to Socrates, whose seminar room was the streets of Athens and who lived on the surplus of his very wealthy friends, And above all, there is Plato's Symposium, perhaps the greatest of the dialogues, wherein drinking and speechmaking leads to philosophizing about the most private and profound of all matters, love... But this kind of high-spirited joke at the expense of the rules and rigidity of the Academy was the essence of the young Manet's elegant and unconventional vision.
In the next few years, Manet produced two works involving contemporary female nudes with which his name will forever be identified: The Picnic on the Grass (Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe) (1863) and Olympia (1865).
Discovery of the Public Space
The Funeral (of Baudelaire) is the crucial painting here. It is the only time the usually tightly-controlled Manet gave his emotions full expression. Painting like a Spanish master, he expresses his bereavement in every brushstroke.
Master of the Still Life
I want to conclude this piece with at least a brief mention of the Manet still life exhibit, which is currently at the Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore (its one and only North American stop). I saw it last fall in Paris at the Musée d'Orsay.
The still life is the touchstone of the painter, Manet observed. Throughout his short career, Manet painted a large number of still lifes, and almost 80 are to be seen in this exhibit.
Sixteen of the most exquisite works were painted in his last two years, when he could only work for short periods on small works because of his weakened condition. Each painting consists of one or several of his favorite flowers (roses, lilacs, tulips) in full bloom in a wine glass or vase. As in The Funeral but without the cosmic gloom, Manet's expressive handling of the paint buoys us up when we are faced with nature's sublime indifference to our fate.
Unfortunately, neither the Musée d'Orsay nor the Walters provide an online exhibit for all those who cannot see it in person. All is not lost - you can still find the best book on these paintings, The Last Flowers of Manet [right] by Robert Gordon and Andrew Forge.
It's worth noting that many of the paintings in the exhibit are owned by museums which do have extensive online exhibits of Manet's work. I would especially recommend the online exhibits at the National Gallery of Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, both of which provide high definition images of paintings from all of the categories I have discussed.
I have not had time to talk about the other genres that Manet explored - the portraits of family and friends, the landscapes, the wonderful one-of-a-kind pieces like The Reading and Woman Before a Mirror.
If true elegance is defined by the elimination of unwarranted detail and the ability to penetrate into the essence of things, Manet's best paintings are among the most elegant ones we have. Let us leave the last word to Manet:
There is no doubt about it, we have in France a core of honesty that always leads us back to truth, in spite of the feats of the acrobats. Look at the Le Nain brothers, Watteau, Chardin, David himself. What a feeling for truth.
This article is copyright 2001 by Joseph Phelan. Please do not republish any portion of this article without written permission.
Joseph Phelan can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
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